In photos: Bougainville chooses independence, as PNG makes pitch

12:53 pm on 20 December 2019

Following an overwhelming majority vote in their historic independence referendum, Bougainvilleans are focussing on nation-building.

Voters were asked to choose between Bougainville having continued autonomy within Papua New Guinea or the second option, becoming independent. A 97.7 percent majority voted for option two.

For now, Bougainville, with its blue flag, remains part of the PNG state. To come into effect, the referendum result would need to be ratified by the national parliament. First there will be consultations between the PNG and Autonomous Bougainville governments on a way forward.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

According to the Bougainville Peace Agreement, of which the referendum was the ultimate provision, there is no prescribed time frame for the consultations. With such a strong majority vote, expectations are high among Bougainvilleans that PNG must respect the will of the people.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Decades on, wrecked machinery from Bougainville's civil war still litters east coast beaches. After the referendum result was announced, PNG's prime minister James Marape said the next stage in the Bougainville peace process would now begin.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Fresh produce to market. PNG's government is pledging to build infrastructure to help Bougainville's economy grow until it finds "mutually beneficial political solutions" following the vote. Fears that the referendum result could set a precedent for other parts of PNG to look to break away run deep among national leaders.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Road to Panguna. Much of the debate about Bougainville's viability for economic independence has centred on whether there should be a reopening of the giant Panguna copper mine. With significant reserves still untapped, mining is seen by many as a kickstarter.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Child on a hillside overlooking the devastated, former bustling town of Panguna in the central mountains. Bougainville's youthful population seeks a break from a recent history of destruction that laid waste to the economic and social harmony of this island.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The Panguna mine has been closed for large scale mining over three decades since it became the flashpoint for landowner uprising and the civil war. Grievances over the environmental damage from the mine, and the uneven distribution of benefits from the Rio Tinto's former operations there remain unresolved.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

A former Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader, and Panguna landowner, Sylvester Birou says if done right, mining can help a new Melanesian nation build an economy. But he says mining laws should be improved to properly recognise landowner rights.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Scratching at Panguna's edges. Some community members are hesitant about a return to large-scale mining by foreigners. While nature has reclaimed much of Panguna, small-scale and alluvial miners etch small livelihoods out of the deposit.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Hollowed-out structures in the jungle. Adding to Bougainville's struggles to get back on its feet after the crisis, PNG still owes hundreds of millions of dollars in annual development funds that it committed to paying under the constitution.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Despite the emphatic vote result, there is uncertainty about whether PNG MPs will approve Bougainville's independence. "Just because past governments have failed them must not give them view that in the future we will fail them," says PM Marape.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Chief Maia Tonjo (left) led his community in building this bridge in Arawa, using materials left over from the Panguna mine. It was built by the community without outside help.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The river that Tonjo's bridge crosses. "Bougainville is thinking now - because you are starting to build by yourself," the chief says a passing UN official told him when seeing the bridge under construction.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

For Bougainvilleans, the question of going forward independently or not was a matter of identity foremost. "The geography of Bougainville is different from the others. We are dark people, we have our unique culture" - Sylvester Birou.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

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